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A tribute for Athol Fugard at sixty.

For the record, Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard was born in Middelburg, Cape Province, on 11 June 1932. In the forty or so years he has been writing, he has produced twenty-one plays (two unpublished), four film scripts, and two novels (one of which he dumped into a lagoon at Fiji). Quite apart from the plays he has directed or acted in, this adds up to a formidable life's work.

Poeta nascitur, non fit: you cannot make a silk purse from a sow's ear. The elusive thing variously called temperament, personality, disposition, gift, may be developed or nurtured, but it cannot be created. As Aristotle says in the Poetics: "The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius" (104; XXII.ix). We should be grateful that educators, social engineers, politicians, and reformers are not able to figure out the source of creativity. They may destroy it, as they did in the cases of Ernest Bloch, Issac Babel, and a host of others, but they cannot make it. That is our hope, our light, our redemption. For in that creative source, as untouchable as the sun, lies the mysterious gift of story.

Reading Fugard's Notebooks, or listening to his personal recollections, does not really clarify how everything began. I have to warn myself not to come up with a post hoc propter hoc sort of explanation of his achievements. His wife, Sheila, recalls a highly strung, sensitive young Fugard who, on walking along the beach with her, was plunged into existential gloom and was "suffering tremendously because the tide was going out" (Gussow 61). Eight years later Fugard explained his feelings about time this way:

It goes back to what I think is man's central dilemma: the fact that life dies. The span can literally be measured. . . . I know nothing about hereafters. I've not been able to escape being fascinated, depressed, appalled, challenged by the fact that one life is so much, and that is your chance to do it. And the passing of those seconds . . . it's death knocking at the door. (Wilhelm 112-13)

I have known Athol Fugard as a friend for over twenty-five years. During that period, I think, his acute paranoia about time has mellowed into something richer and more generous. Now, instead of causing him to feel deeply threatened, time itself allows him to feel and understand the astonishing beauty and sadness of the world and its people. Like Pizzaro in Peter Shaffer's play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, he can say:

Everything we feel is made of Time. All the beauties of life are shaped by it. Imagine a fixed sunset: the last note of a song that hung an hour, or a kiss for half of it. Try and halt a moment in our lives and it becomes maggoty at once. (64)

In Fugard's early plays characters are often working against time. Throughout The Blood Knot, for example, an alarm clock is vociferously present. In People Are Living There the senile grandfather clock has to be kicked when it wants to strike more than seventeen. Characters often report on themselves, saying what sort of day they have had. Often they raise the question of the odds against ever getting themselves and their lives together again, or making a fresh start in life. Here are some examples from Nongogo:

QUEENY: . . . You're stuck with it [your life] . . . him, me . . .

Blackie . . . There's somebody else who wouldn't mind taking it apart and putting it together again, with a few improvements. But where do you start?

JOHNNY: . . . sometimes I get the crazy idea that a man can change the world he lives in. Hell! You can't even change yourself. . . . I wanted to start today more than anything else in my life. I thought I'd been given my chance to start from the beginning. (79, 109, 112)

Nowadays, I think, Fugard sees our situation much as Nikos Kazantzakis put it in The Saviors of God: "We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life" (43). We are a story told between deserts of vast eternity. We are pressed by time but we have the gift of tongues. Our stories are important because we can remake ourselves through them; we can re-invest this flesh and blood with meaning that is so easily lost through indifference, weariness, or lack of courage. But it takes energy to invest life with meaning, and the investment is made in stories, without which we are merely alimentary canals fighting other alimentary canals for food.

So in this tribute I wish to bring together two ideas that illuminate Fugard's plays for me: (1) the central importance of story as a statement against time, and (2) the idea that if the word was once made flesh, then the flesh can also be made word. Story, or flesh made word, is what I understand to be the central dynamic of Fugard's, and perhaps of all, drama. Many sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story. Fugard, I think, is saying something similar: "The safest place I know is at the center of a story" (he acknowledged this, to cite one instance, at Rhodes University Theatre in 1991).

It is all very well to say this. The question is how did Fugard arrive at his present position? As you know, during and after World War II South African theatre was in the doldrums. We were fed a diet of imported plays: Shakespeare, Shaw, Synge, O'Casey, Ibsen. During the war I remember seeing, in the Library Theatre, Johannesburg, a production of Tobacco Road and a very serious play about a Russian commissar. Guy Butler's The Dam (1952) was the first South African play I had ever seen, though I had seen C. Louis Leipoldt's Die Hex a number of times.

We know in one way how Fugard began--with the desire to be a writer. Of course, nobody can just be a writer; it is not that simple. But like the consumptive brother Edmund Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, in 1953 Fugard traveled. There are some good stories of how he got places. Many of them can be found in Russell Vandenbroucke's Truths the Hand Can Touch: hitchhiking north with Perseus Adams, the sardines and the bronze medal in philosophy, hostage in Port Sudan, a job on the S.S. Graigaur, stolen trousers in the Far East, the writer at work, the novel that was dumped in a Fijian lagoon. These stories are all part of a fascinating Bildungsroman, but there is no way of extracting from them anything that explains Fugard's final products. For, pace the determinists, there is no way of reducing real works of art to the socio-cultural context said to be surrounding and thus generating them.

Fugard returned from his travels, became a journalist, moved to Cape Town, met and married Sheila, got a sniff of theatre, and then moved to Johannesburg in 1958. He got a job for three months as a clerk in the Native Affairs court. The experiences there were horrifying and degrading, not so much for himself as in terms of what he felt for the people who were being shunted through the court like cattle. He left the court and took a job backstage with the National Theatre company. He had written a few plays when he was in Cape Town: not good plays--one of them was even in blank verse, "very blank" says Fugard. Then one day in Johannesburg his friend Benjy Pogrund took him to Sophiatown to meet black people who were intelligent, articulate, and whole, and not lying down before the apartheid juggernaut. They were people triumphantly and defiantly themselves in spite of circumstances. They heard he was a writer of plays, and they asked him to write one for them. This was what Aristotle would have called the Sufficient Cause. At any rate he accepted the challenge. So in August 1958 No-Good Friday appeared at the Bantu Men's Social Centre, Polly Street, Johannesburg. It was followed a year later by Nongogo. Fugard had swallowed the bait.

What about these early plays? They contain specifics of time and place; they read grimly; their human stance is derived from Arthur Miller, realism with heroic undertones. Seeing or reading them is like turning to the Yellow Pages: the meaning is pointed to but not contained by the plays themselves. Fugard clearly was fascinated by the creative freedom theatre afforded him, and his excitement was unbounded. But the craftsmanship in these early plays is insecure, and they are not much more than witnesses to felt social grievances. Already Fugard sensed that you need to be careful about unbounded optimism that your play will change society, for plays do not work on social ills like antibiotics. Yet in some way the plays helped exorcise the horror and guilt he felt about apartheid. You note I did not say eliminate--I said exorcise.

Then something happened--not suddenly, but it happened nonetheless. In 1959 he and Sheila went to Europe, and that is where the transformation took place in his perception of theatre. I liken it to James Watt watching a kettle boiling on the hob: he saw the lid bulged up with steam, and it occurred to him that he could harness this energy into a steam engine. In Europe Fugard saw plays by Osborne, Pinter, Simpson, Wesker, Ionesco, Beckett, Chekov, Brecht, and Sartre. He felt the infectious excitement of the new surge of interest in theatre, in what was sometimes dubbed the second Renaissance of European theatre. This upsurge of energy was a clearing out of the Augean stables, a dismissal of what theatre had been about for the past fifty years, and an affirmation that you could make theatre out of anything, especially out of the European psyche ravaged by the Second World War and robbed of its certainties.

Absurdist theatre, for that is what it was, was making its appointment with what Max Horkheimer called the "eclipse of reason." Europe's drama fitted Europe like a glove, for absurdity in drama mirrored and enacted the absurdity of life itself. Instead of the cozy security of the proscenium arch and the stability of well-furnished rooms, plays were now set in dank basements, ugly bed-sitters, lavatories, and insane asylums. Iconoclasts were at work on all levels, but the main result was a freshness of vision and experience, a liberation of drama from its previous inhibitions and constrictions.

I think Fugard learned in Europe that all you need for a play is two or three characters linked in a bond of blood, marriage, or friendship; and that the laboratory of the human heart is where all significant transformations and discoveries take place. He moved, if you like, from what Aldous Huxley called Abstract Man to Fictional Man:

My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on--like Coleridge--why, it's nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing--both in life and in art. (214)

The first real play Fugard wrote was as authentic and indigenous as biltong: The Blood Knot, performed in October 1961 in Dorkay House, Johannesburg. Why was this play so different from his earlier ones? It is important to give very specific answers to this question.

(1) Traditional exposition and scene-setting had gone. Exposition was now internalized, and released slowly by a kind of backward discovery throughout the course of the play: e.g., the problem of just how the characters arrived where they are and why.

(2) Not only were characters stripped of as much as possible, but setting too was at a minimum, reduced to remove protection from characters. Of course, this was also an indirect social comment.

(3) Emphasis was placed as much as possible on the actor. The actor now had to make everything happen.

(4) Assumptions of a fixed framework of values vanished. Characters now had to be seen trying to find meaning and values in a world that seemed to resist yielding up its meaning.

(5) South African English made its appearance at last: indigenous, local language--the way we speak.

(6) Instead of the author making comments through characters, using them as mouthpieces, there was now a reversal whereby characters reported on themselves or told their own stories as though they were totally ignoring the author by constructing themselves. To put the point another way, South Africa was teeming with "characters," but was waiting for an "author" to discover their coherence and meaning--a bit like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

This last point needs clarification. I believe, with R. D. Laing (77), that self-identity is the story you tell yourself of who you are. You tell one story about yourself in preference to another one, which may be less flattering or more disturbing to you. We have in common with characters in plays that we are stories, fictions embodied in the flesh. As Russell Hoban says, "We make fiction because we are fiction" (12). But the fictions we were used to in South Africa were stereotypes, the stories we told were locked into an inflexible framework of habit and perception. Parading across our footlights were the cruel Afrikaner farmer, the conscience-stricken white liberal, and the suffering black man. Such stereotypes abounded in South African literature, and generated excruciating and predictable conflicts, as in William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe, in Dan Jacobson's A Dance in the Sun, and in much of Nadine Gordimer's fiction. The stereotypes even had a certain political force, it being supposed that they reflected the actual political situation of Afrikaners, English, and Africans.

What Fugard did, in a culture that feared subtlety might be tantamount to wilfully ignoring the injustices of apartheid, was to show something desperately needed for sanity: that character is not a fixed "identikit" or stereotype, but a river; that we are not one self but many selves. In effect, Fugard discarded older conventions of character by showing characters struggling to be characters at all, struggling to formulate and tell a story about who they are. Instead of having us watch fixed characters through the frame of well-made plot and a well-defined situation, he let the equivalent of the frame be inside the characters and allowed their struggled-for world view (or story) to be the effective concern of his plays. Thus the absurd situation itself generated character and meaning. It is perhaps obvious once you see how it works. But what is so important about Fugard is that he was the one who saw what to do, and did it.

Almost all his plays have political or social content. They are, after all, generated here in South Africa, and not on some spaceship circling above us. They owe much to the smell of the seabush at Schoenmakerskop, to dried, crunching peppercorns in New Bethesda, to the sound of bokmakieries [birds], to the smell of burning rubber. But all prices are paid by human beings, by individuals. It means nothing to say "The state suffers" or "The country suffers." That is nonsense, because it is people who suffer; it is people who have to pay the price for everything. And how many people do you need to put together to demonstrate this? Very few. All Shakespeare needed to show coherence ripping apart from top to bottom was Lear, the Fool, and poor Tom on the naked heath. One of Fugard's most recent plays, My Children! My Africa!, has only three characters.

Yet in spite of the strong social and political content of Fugard's plays, I have come to regard him primarily as a humanist in the tradition of Kazantzakis in Report to Greco, and of Camus in "Return to Tipasa." What is the origin of Fugard's humanism? He says his humanity came from his mother, who had the capacity for rising above the South African situation without trying to escape it, and of seeing people as people:

Like Piet Bezuidenhout in A Lesson from Aloes, she had this set of ideas and human values that put her in radical opposition to the system. . . . She never got involved in politics, but as early as I can remember she had an understanding of the injustice. I think that all the faith I have in life and in people . . . comes to me from my mother. (Gussow 52)

Drama, like fiction, is a lie. It is not strictly true. So how is it we take lies seriously? Many of the most rewarded and prestigious South African writers have for years got away with relying on the actuality of public events as the guarantee of their worth as writers. "Why should I read your books?" you ask them. "Because they can be shown to be true to reality, to history, whether public or private." But that is not good enough. You cannot simply go out and catch reality. A real artist, like Fugard, sets cunning traps and lures for reality. Reality only yields itself up indirectly. It can take effort to invest life with meaning, to discover the humanity of human beings. Having the text of a play is, of course, only a pretext for performance, because a text is nothing unless it is performed. The text itself is a set of traps and snares; the flesh-and-blood blood actors are another.

This is what Fugard says:

Theatre uses more of the actual substance of life than any other art. You use the flesh and blood of the actor. . . . It's a living moment in theatre when truth in writing coincides with truth in performance. The astonishing power that has! It's pure Zen. What remains of a performance after you've seen it? You can't play it back. You can go back and see it again, but it's not going to the same. It's there for one moment. That's what gives it a greater potency than film. A writer told me he had read The Blood Knot and had problems with it. He felt a certain crudity, a baseness, invested in the character of Zach. He said all the lyricism goes with the white brother. At that moment, all I could think of saying was "If that's what you receive, that's what you receive." I thought about it afterward. What I could have said is that you on the receiving end of theatre bring as much to it and add as potent a chemistry as I do as writer, director, and actor. I go halfway, you come halfway. The chemistry that we bring decides what the moment is about. (Gussow 90)

In the end, I think what informs Fugard's work is a sense of reverence for life ("with a capital F," as Don quips in People Are Living There [28]), which owes a great deal to the way he has opened up, over the past forty years, to the unfathomability of the universe. Certainly he used to be a willful agnostic, an angry Sartrean existentialist. But how can one read or witness Isabel's speech at the very end of My Children! My Africa! and not see that Fugard is affirming and celebrating life?

Yes! Thami was right Mr. M. He said I'd feel near you up here.

He's out there somewhere Mr. M. . . . traveling north. He didn't say where exactly he was going, but I think we can guess, can't we.

I'm here for a very "old-fashioned" reason, so I know you'll approve. I've come to pay my last respects to Anela Myalatya. I know the old-fashioned way of doing that is to bring flowers, lay them on the grave, say a quiet prayer and then go back to your life. But that seemed sort of silly this time. You'll have enough flowers around here when the spring comes . . . which it will. So instead I've brought you something which I know will mean more to you than flowers or prayers ever could. A promise. I am going to make Anela Myalatya a promise.

You gave me a little lecture once about wasted lives . . . how much of it you'd seen, how much you hated it, how much you didn't want that to happen to Thami and me. I sort of understood what you meant at the time. Now, I most certainly do. Your death has seen to that.

My promise to you is that I am going to try as hard as I can, in every way that I can, to see that it doesn't happen to me. I am going to try my best to make my life useful in the way yours was. I want you to be proud of me. After all, I am one of your children you know. You did welcome me to your family.

(A pause.)

The future is still ours, Mr. M. (77-78)

There was a time when Fugard could get away with an intriguing search for meaning, such as The Blood Knot and Hello and Goodbye. But even that proved to be not enough. You cannot go on writing plays like Pinter or Beckett, where the meaning lies in the characters' inability to grasp or formulate it. The experiments in theatre finally reveal that there is meaning, and that it is the writer's job to catch it in his web, his net, his snare. In the end we cannot discuss the meaning of meaning. What we can do is see that meaning is located, embodied in a deliberate structure, so that meaning and structure are inseparable. A play is not a bag in which you collect social issues. Many of the plays we see nowadays are mere excuses for letting off racial, political, or sexual steam: mere exorcism. They do not live up to the demand made by Fugard that they be something more. In the end, I value enormously a comment he made to me in 1978. It has all the awe and wonder of a child standing for the first time on the seashore:

An act of theatre must transcend the specifics, and transcend that again . . . something archetypal. It's never something new in theatre. It can't be. . . . I've learned that I know nothing . . . the holes of nothingness get bigger and bigger.
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Title Annotation:Athol Fugard Issue
Author:Maclennan, Don
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Date:Dec 22, 1993
Words:3763
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